In the lead up to the European Referendum on 23 June, there is much public debate about how Britain should define its future relationship with the European Union (EU). The ‘Out’ campaign has naturally taken the nationalist route – championing the traditional symbols of British sovereignty they believe are being eroded by EU regulations on migration and trade. Not to undermine their patriotic virtues, the ‘In’ campaign has adopted a similar approach by arguing why Britain’s national interests are best served through EU membership. The full implications of either outcome have yet to be fully appreciated by the British public. The economic, political, social and legal considerations are difficult to fully comprehend, namely because the EU is by nature a complex and evolving entity. One question Britain must consider, however, is the extent to which leaving Europe would undermine its national security.
In a theoretical sense, Europe is a powerful international actor. The combined resource of its members-states grants the EU superior leverage – an innovative and mammoth economy supported by the principles of democracy and liberal freedoms. The EU’s capacity to entice is balanced by its access to the military capabilities of an advanced and experienced fighting force. Of course, these preceding statements are diluted when we consider the practical realities underlying the EU’s international prowess. This begs question - what does Britain really gain from its security relationship with Europe?
Recent history has revealed an institution marred by member-state divisions, a stalled and poorly guided security integration process (currently manifested through the Common Foreign Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy), a generalist foreign policy agenda and a lacking willingness to cooperate on issues that directly threaten European security. Europe’s lacklustre response to US War in Iraq wasted an ideal opportunity for the Union to make a unified impact on the conflict. Since then, similar opportunities have presented themselves, only to be wasted time and time again – whether through the French military action in Mali, France and the UK’s enforcement of a no flight zone in Libya, Russia’s annexation of the Ukraine or the ongoing Syrian civil war.
All of these events undermine Europe’s security interests, and demand a European response. Yet what we have bared witness to has been nothing short of uninspiring. Why then would a Brexit harm British security given the EU’s underwhelming status as an international actor?
A Brexit would still allow Britain to enhance its close security cooperation with France without having to worry about the additional layer of European bureaucracy. And a Brexit is unlikely to undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) – an alliance that has traditionally served as Europe’s security guarantor.
Britain has always prided its ‘special’ transatlantic relationship with the US. Since the 1940s, the UK has regarded its relationship with the US to be exceptionally close – bound together through a common history, language and culture. President Obama’s recent call for the UK to remain in the EU, however, suggests that this exclusive relationship is also an out-dated one belonging to a different era. The US wants a strong and united Europe precisely so that it can undertake a firm pivot to Asia.
Increasing calls by British and European politicians, military leaders and diplomats for the UK to remain in the EU demonstrates a stark reality – while Europe still needs to define its place within the world, a Brexit will symbolically undermine all that the EU has strived to become over these last two decades. EU membership may not directly offer the UK the benefits that realists would consider important to any security alliance. But it does allow the UK to have a say in the future direction of a community that is being increasingly challenged by traditional power balances and non-conventional security threats.
For this reason, the vocal support for Britain to remain in the EU needs to serve as the catalysing event that will compel European leaders to overhaul the current security framework and put in place a new system that caters to its potential strengths and overcomes its perceived weaknesses. This is a two-pronged process that will require a change in thinking and a new approach to engaging the international system. Let’s hope that Britain and Europe take this opportunity to enhance Europe’s position on the international stage.
Rhys Merrett is a PhD Candidate at the ANU Centre for European Studies
Image Credit: Descrier (Flickr: Creative Commons)